December 02, 2005

Gratuitous Musickal Posting (TM)

A commenter left remarks in response to my recent Christmas Celebration Diktat, specifically responding to my ranting about classical music as background noise, that I thought worth highlighting:

Just one minor factual error: Bach could have reasonably expected most of his audience to listen respectfully, since he primarily wrote church music, but Handel, well...back in the day, concerts weren't such formal, hush-hush affairs as they are now. Old Georg Friederic, along with Mozart, Haydn, etc. knew full well that most of their audience would spend as much of the performance socializing as they would listnening, and a good portion of their music was actually composed for use as background music, sort of like a band you might hire to play at a wedding reception. There wasn't too much actual respect for those guys in their time. Which is most likely part of the reason why once in a while they turned out such HUGE sounding things you can't ignore, like the Hallelujiah Chorus-to get people's ATTENTION. Sure the king was so moved that he stood for that section of the Messiah and set the ground for a tradition that lasts even now, but more likely than not when the tenor was crooning Ev'ry Valley earlier in the performance, his majesty was complaining to the queen about something he ate that didn't agree with him instead of listening.

All that to say, if you don't like well aged art music as background music, that's fine, but do know that it was, indeed, meant to be just that.

Well, yes and no. It's a perfectly valid point that concerts were much more casual affairs in those days, with lots of people coming in and out and chatting. It is also a perfectly valid point that composers did compose pieces that were meant specifically as background music. Handel's own "Water Music" and "Music for the Royal Fireworks" come to mind, as do many of the serenades and divertimenti of Mozart.

But I think it's a huge jump to suggest that all concert music of the 18th Century was written with the intention that it be treated as nothing more than background noise. While composers of the day knew that a given portion of their audience often would not be paying particularly close attention to their music, this doesn't mean that they were necessarily happy about it or that they put forth their efforts assuming they would be largely ignored. (Indeed, the famous "surpise" note in Haydn's Symphony No. 94 was a signal of Papa's good-natured impatience with the London crowd, for example.) Also, I think it's probably fair to say that varying levels of sophistication and enthusiasm existed among the different cultural centers of the time such as London, Paris and Vienna. Despite the presence of plenty of people who either didn't know or didn't care what they were listening to, nonetheless there would always be a body of listeners who cared very much what they were hearing.

As for the "Hallelujiah Chorus", I really don't see it as a "pay attention, you bastards!" stunt by Handel. Instead, it is the natural triumphant climax of the the entire oratorio: Christ's crowning as King of Heaven. So of course Handel threw everything he could into it. Indeed, the piece is very closely modelled on coronation anthems of the time (including those written by Handel himself), and the symbolism of the music would have been lost on nobody in the audience, especially King George - which probably explains in large part why he felt moved to rise to his feet.

(Just as an aside, I make a point of not standing up when I hear this in public concerts. In part, I think the custom is a silly one. More importantly, however, it's my own quiet form of protest of the Hanovarian usurpation of the throne of England. But that's a different story.)

Posted by Robert at December 2, 2005 11:36 AM | TrackBack